logo_jazz jp

For celebrated British composer Jonathan Harvey, the Lemur plays a key part in his live performance arsenal, facilitating music which truly and innovatively treads the boundary between acoustic and electronic music.

Jazzmutant has the pleasure of Harvey's company prior to the performance of Madonna of Winter and Spring at Música Viva Festival, Casa de Musica, Porto Portugal to hear his views on music and electronics and how the Lemur has helped.

Not many contemporary composers can lay claim to such an astonishingly varied array of critically acclaimed works as Harvey. These range from beautiful, explicitly tonal, choral music to electronic works admired by such luminaries in the field of modernism as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. The latter was the founder of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the world-renowned hotbed of innovation in avante garde electroacoustic music, art and science, where Harvey came to produce much of his work. Readers of this article will probably have heard of FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis and Max/MSP (audio and MIDI processing software) which were both developed within IRCAM's walls. So it comes as no surprise that Harvey is a technology enthusiast who is now gladly embracing the immense musical possibilities of the Jazzmutant's groundbreaking Lemur.

An influential musical movement with which Harvey has been associated is that of spectralism. Here, the natural qualities of sound itself are used to guide composition - analysing individual sounds and their "spectra". Manipulating timbre, pitch, and rhythm of sounds in this way is more akin to "sculpting" sound than the "building block" approach used by more traditional composers. Performances in this genre may or may not involve actual electronics but often invoke sonic effects such as ring modulation, feedback and frequency modulation, thus lending a distinctive "electronic" sound to the music. Sequences of the Wind (1975) for example, an early piece by Peter Eötvös (a colleague of Harvey's at IRCAM), simulates ring modulation spectra purely instrumentally.

So why does Harvey choose to employ electronics in his work?

"Because there's a problem with tuning", explains Harvey. He points out that spectralism and instrumentalism can be made to work, however, reproducing these works and their acoustic effects using traditional instruments requires extraordinarily refined training. "In general I don't try to do that", he comments. "I use electronics with instruments, nevertheless in a spectra way...I've been working more and more towards live electronics. It's usually a combination of samples and live treatment [of acoustic instruments]". He continues, "I suppose the general philosophy is to keep the electronics rather close to the instruments and not to have another world [of sound]".

Today's astronomical rates of advance in computer and music technology clearly hold great influence on Harvey's productions. "I've been moving towards the complexity of live treatments - with bigger and faster computers and devices like the Lemur it's become easier and easier," says Harvey. "In the opera we treated 21 instruments. Sometimes not 21 treatments but maybe 10 treatments at the same time in the same computer. Phenomenal really... in real time!"

With these sophisticated live treatments "the electronics are not generated by a machine, but the performer generates the electronics", - or in other words, is assisted by them. This "desire to keep the electronics as part of the instruments" and not "in another world" is an important part of Harvey's current musical direction. So what live treatments can the audience expect to experience?

One example is harmonisation, imagine a violinist being "multiplied". "With one note on the violin we have ten notes coming through the loudspeakers with the same vibrato and the same sul ponticello," explains Harvey. "Or it could be filtering, picking out the spectrum of the violin [and its] partials," he adds. He explains how different parts of the spectrum can be selected by different filters and then amplified and circulated in the hall. This gives the audience the illusion that the violin is "a machine which generates a whole rainbow of high pitches." He demonstrates how, using spatialisation, these pitches can sound as if they are literally flying around the hall.

There is also remodulation, or convolution. Arguably Harvey's most famous work, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980) involved convoluting a cathedral bell with the sound of his son singing. The sounds appear to seamlessly morph from one into the other, and back again. Harvey tells us that his next work at IRCAM involves combining analyses of recorded speech in English and convoluting it with orchestral instruments, "so the orchestra seems to be speaking!" An important question, then, is how all this live electronic treatment is controlled. Harvey establishes the importance of the spatialisation of sound, and indeed the Lemur, in the performance of Madonna of Winter and Spring: "The score specifies how to circulate the sound, how to move the sound and [at] what speed," he says. He demonstrates the traditional way of doing this: using pan-pots on the desk and a finger to move the sound rapidly or very slowly, as desired. "Originally we did it with joysticks," he states. "But now there is the Lemur machine, which is a kind of virtual graphic tablet. My setup uses two balls which I can move around the area on screen with my fingers, [ thus controlling the position of the sound in the hall]. . . . Now we've updated this whole work to use this new technology."

As demonstrated by many other Lemur and Dexter users too, the technology afforded by Jazzmutant lends itself perfectly to these kind of spatial, all-encompassing, immersive surround sound applications. In Harvey's words: "the spacialisation is very important and the sounds . . .can come [from] very high, very far away, and they can begin to move - this all part of the symbolism of this work that's dedicated to the Virgin Mary."

But what about the other live treatments, how are they controlled? "With faders . . . on the Lemur - controlling the Max patch . . . [and] a big matrix!", he says. He describes how his keyboardist plays keys and triggers simultaneously. These triggers each activate a new matrix so that the routing is changed through different treatments. "It sometimes happens very quickly. . . . It's crazy - you can do so much!"

I think most of us would agree with Jonathan when he says "With electronics everything changes doesn't it? That's why I love it."
Go back to Artists

© Copyright JazzMutant 2017 03-25-2017